Judaism, public figures, Religion

Martin Luther King’s Impact on Judaism

Not too long ago, I was trying to think of ways to teach my young children about Martin Luther King. While searching online for books about Rosa Parks and “I had a Dream,” a certain Facebook thread caught my eye. A close friend had just seen Rabbi Capers Funnye – an African American convert to Judaism and the head rabbi of a Chicago synagogue – in a local restaurant. Rabbi Funnye, who according to The New York Times used to hear the joke “Funnye, you don’t look Jewish,” is also a cousin of Michelle Obama.

Apparently, he was in the neighborhood speaking about African American Jewry as part of a series of similar lectures taking place across the country.

In addition to being the first African American “Head Rabbi” of a synagogue, Funnye co-founded the Alliance of Black Jews in 1995. I thought how appropriate it was that my friend’s sighting took place the night before Martin Luther King Day. According to Funnye, King is his hero, the predecessor who set the groundwork for the Rabbi’s tremendous efforts and strides.

In recent times, Rabbi Funnye has brought a lot of positive attention to the African American Jewish community, one that is being embraced by Jews across the nation and finally getting the recognition and respect it deserves. Despite encountering some initial hesitation as the first and only black “Head Rabbi,” Funnye contends in the New York Times article, “I am a Jew, and that breaks through all color and ethnic barriers.”

While reading about Funnye and how he decided to convert to Judaism after extensive exploration into religion (converting is no easy feat for anyone regardless of race, nor is being born Jewish!), I decided I had something to add to what I was teaching my children. Martin Luther King Jr. did not just impact the world, he did not just pave the way for other African American leaders who we respect today, but he impacted the Jewish community as well. Rabbi Funnye is evidence of that. Imagine how much harder the rabbi would have had to work to represent the African American Jewish community had there been no King. Funnye’s continuous, tireless efforts might be fruitless today had it not been for his influential predecessor.

It is my hope that my children have the opportunity to meet Rabbi Funnye at an upcoming talk and see how far not only our country, but our religion, has come since Martin Luther King Jr. spoke and shared his dream.

Originally published here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/shira-hirschman-weiss/martin-luther-king-impact_b_810063.html.

Judaism, Religion

He’s Just Not That Into Your God: Jewish Conversion and Relationships

conversion collage

TIMES OF ISRAEL, TABLET MAGAZINE, These couples each have a converted member among them, but it’s not always so easy to commit oneself to Judaism.

It took only three words for my friend Karen to lose her breath, plunging into serious hyperventilation mode.
“I don’t know,” said Jeff.

Her extremities began to tingle. “What … do … you … mean … YOU … DON’T … KNOW?”

“I don’t think I can go through with the conversion,” he said, squarely looking her in the eye. For a flicker of a moment, she thought she heard the word “conversation,” but there it was: the weightier C word.

Two years earlier, Karen and Jeff, both in their late 20s, had met through work acquaintances. The attraction was instantaneous, as was their connection. To Karen, who had been raised in a Modern Orthodox Jewish home, her religion was an absolute. To Jeff, it was a part of Karen, whom he loved. He began to fervently explore her religion and truly became interested in studying the Torah. He began to know many of the laws and texts better than Karen did from her years in religious schools. However, as all who are familiar with Orthodox Jewish conversions can attest to, the process is deliberately a difficult one.

“Becoming part of the Jewish people is a serious matter,” says Rabbi Shlomo Slatkin, MS, LCPC and Certified Imago Relationship Therapist. Rabbi Slatkin, aka “The Relationship Rabbi,” spends his days counseling couples. “Even for those who are born Jewish, it is a life-long endeavor learning how to live as a Jew. The conversion process is deliberately difficult because we need to make sure that the prospective convert is sincere about this complete transformation.”

Slatkin explains that a convert is considered like a newborn baby, born anew and with a new soul. “We want to make sure that a prospective convert understands this and realizes that they can remain a non-Jew and still merit the world to come if they live a righteous life. Becoming a Jew is an awesome responsibility and we want to make sure that they are prepared for this.”

Jeff sat down to learn several times a week with a rabbi. Several times a week his intentions were questioned by members of Karen’s community. And several times a week, Jeff’s shell cracked a little, then a little bit more. His work schedule began to be affected and his relationship suddenly seemed to require more effort: He was regularly defending his zeal for Judaism it seemed to Karen’s and her parents’ acquaintances. Since Karen wasn’t one of those girls who regularly raved about her own religious beliefs, a drop of doubt fell for Jeff. The drop became a rivulet.

“Interfaith relationships, as well as relationships in which one is more passionate about the same religion than the other [i.e. one is Orthodox Jewish, the other is Jewish but not at all religious], are extremely complicated,” says Dr. Fran Walfish, child and family psychotherapist and author of “The Self-Aware Parent.” “[Those types of relationships] need careful exploration and discussion prior to marriage and children. A detailed dialogue about how each one wants to raise their future children should take place early in the relationship. Both individuals need to be close to center, rather than polarized or extreme in their religious practices and beliefs. If one is to the right, then many complex challenges arise that include where the kids will go to school, will they be baptized or bar mitzvahed, how to celebrate holidays, attendance at church or synagogue — not to mention in-laws and extended family pressures.”

Dr. Walfish goes on to say, “All this said, I have treated couples in which both were close to center at the onset of the relationship. After marriage, when a baby was born, one in a couple that I was counseling became more attached to her religion. She enrolled her child in a Catholic school behind her Jewish husband’s back and against earlier commitment to public education for their kids. Although the husband could eventually forgive her, no one could sway the wife to return to her earlier, middle-of-the-road commitment. It was a deal-breaker for the marriage that sadly ended in divorce.”

Rabbi Slatkin, who sees many Jewish couples in his practice, says that even though these couples are not interfaith, the religious disparity can be enough to cause major tensions. He does not recommend that people initially get involved in a relationship where one person is Orthodox, for example, and the other is not. There are enough religious issues that can arise with Orthodox couples alone, he explains, “especially where one is more ‘into it’ than the other. To get into a situation that will add another layer of conflict would not be wise. Keeping a kosher home, Shabbos, the laws of family purity, sending to Jewish day schools, at a minimum is a major lifestyle difference. If one person is not interested in these things, it will be very challenging.”

Rabbi Slatkin adds that this is not to say it can’t be done, but that to enter into a relationship with these types of issues from the start is precarious. “I do not believe in forcing people to change as it only leads to resentment,” he says, “If one gets married thinking the other will change or be OK with things, it won’t happen. When we fall in love, we say a lot of things. Once we get married and the inevitable power struggle arises, these issues may become a bone of contention.” For those already in relationships of this sort, Rabbi Slatkin says that it is possible for the relationships to work if both are committed to open discussions and learning how to understand one another. “I don’t advise looking for such a relationship in the first place,” he adds.

Jeff and Karen are not together today. After much heartache, a few breakups and attempts to reunite, they both found new partners and moved on. But did they really? When I speak to Karen, who no longer speaks to Jeff, but stayed in touch with him for several years after their breakup, she says that a part of her will always love Jeff…

…and a part of Jeff will always love Judaism.


My Golden Mean: Reflecting on a Year of Religion-Related Ruminations

It was a good question and one that recapped a very confusing year of my life. For 24 years I had been an observant, modern orthodox Jew, always questioning yet accepting that not all my questions would be answered in a way that was clear to me. I was content in my tight-knit community until I felt the community turn on me. At 25, I had met a 30-year-old lawyer and my friends in the orthodox Jewish community of Upper West Side Manhattan did not approve of the match, or the fact that he had previously dated someone else in our circle. My synagogue became an unsettling place and I was the recipient of many dirty looks. I stopped going.


When I had first started dating the charming lawyer, I knew he was trouble and literally a “bad boy” but he was hilarious, captivating, intelligent and cultured in a way that the other boys I was meeting were not. Totally under his spell, we began spending a lot of time together. I knew he wasn’t Mr. Right with his inexplicable outbursts from time to time (i.e. getting enraged that I had confused Flushing and Forest Hills) but I was definitely stuck in the Right Now. I also felt trapped: I did not have my old Upper West Side “community” of friends to go back to. Although this new boyfriend was Jewish, he wasn’t at all religious, and slowly, I began to wonder how much I cared about being orthodox, how much of what I had done I believed and how much had to do with routine.

But I was lonely. I had been a part of something for so long and now, it seemed I was out in the world with doubts and no place to go. I found comfort with my family but I was scared to tell them all that I was questioning. I remembered something that I had learned in school about what the Jewish philosopher Maimonides said: The ideal is the Shvil Hazahav, the Golden Mean or optimal middle path. He said that when it comes to character traits, extreme is never the way to go. Growing up as a modern orthodox Jew, my friends and family always referred to people who were “to the left,” “to the right” or “in the middle,” but each person had a different definition of those categories. They were entirely subjective. Maimonides said you needed to be in the middle and that too was open to interpretation.

During Rosh Hashanah, I am thinking about my relationship with the lawyer, my relationship with the community, and my relationship with God. In my own mind, I was now bordering on agnostic and for me personally, that was too far “to the left.” I needed to get to my Golden Mean. It wouldn’t be where I had started, gone was the complacency to accept without question. It also wouldn’t be where I had recently found myself — completely lost.

A week before the high holidays, I decided to sign up for a spiritual retreat where mainly Jews who are looking to become orthodox go. I was a rarity there being an FFB — a Frum (Yiddish for “orthodox”) From Birth — but I went for one reason: to see the beauty in Jewish people, orthodox and non-orthodox alike. I went to see the fire, the passion that I remembered had inspired me in the past, and that had excited me so much about the Jewish people.

And I saw it there. I also learned… and learned. I met orthodox rabbis who embraced Jews of many walks of life, rabbis who didn’t scoff or undermine questions about liberal issues, rabbis who had clear answers to the very questions I had deemed unanswerable. And I met Jews who were eclectic, open-minded and warm, Jews who were straight and Jews who were gay. Everyone was embraced on this retreat. Like me, everybody on this retreat was longing… for a community.

When I got back, the lawyer continued treating me badly but I strengthened my resolve to break up with him. I was not trapped and I did not have to go back to the group that had snubbed me. There were other observant Jewish people that I could associate with who were warm, like girls I had known in high school. There were observant Jews, “Landsmen” who had helped me find Shabbat meals in foreign countries. There were observant Jews — perfect strangers — who had embraced me and welcomed me into their homes. There were others who had taken an interest in me and had set me up on dates. There was so much more that my community had to offer, more than cliquey women in a synagogue who didn’t know me but had decided to hate based on hearsay.

I broke up with the boyfriend and remembered something else that I had heard about the Golden Mean: Sometimes you have to hit the opposite extreme in order to reach the middle.

Had I reached “the opposite extreme?”

Well, it was subjective, but for me, yes, I had. In the back of my mind I had always believed in God, but for the past year, I had been out of touch. As I thought about the concept of Teshuva (repentence), an intrinsic part of Rosh Hashana and the high holidays, I knew what I had to do. I gradually began to pray — not the traditional prayers of the religious Jewish people, but prayers said in my own words. It was strange for me as I had always prayed in Hebrew (and truth be told, hadn’t always understood all of what I was saying). Just like I didn’t necessarily believe that He wore a yarmulke (I had always pictured George Burns laughing down on me), I didn’t think he would not accept my prayers because they were in English. I turned to this God for strength and guidance as I slowly returned to my community and made new friends.


Why Do Atheists Read the Religion Section?

(This piece originally ran on The Hufington Post in January of 2011. Although the tone of the article is “tongue in cheek”, it provoked some ire among the site’s readership then. Before you scroll on, realize that I was trying to have some fun, which is why I had comedians weigh in on the subject of “why atheists read the Religion section.” I’m actually the least judgmental – and the most lax – person when it comes to Theology. Also, at the time of publication, a rabbi who I interviewed for this piece had not yet embarked on some controversial campaigns that he would carry out in 2016-2018, activism that I do not condone in the least. It’s noteworthy that this was written when the concept of “Donald Trump as U.S. President” was completely unfathomable. With this intro and those disclaimers, you may now read on.)

ESH atheist cartoon

Cartoon by Elie Shmuel Hirschman, AKA “ESH”

Some of the most interesting people I’ve met are atheists. It’s no wonder; Psychologist Daniel Crosby, PhD pointed me to a recent Pew poll which found that atheists and agnostics score highest, compared to the religiously affiliated, on a measure of religious knowledge. After publishing my first Huffington Post article, numerous atheists posted comments to opine on the religious views I expressed (if the name hasn’t clued you in, I’m Jewish). While reading those comments, a friend asked “Why do atheists read the religion section?” In the same breath, that person said “Well, why the hell not!” Those ruminations inspired this piece.

I decided to open the floor to this discussion because the Religion section was looking a lot like Howard Stern. Let me explain: In the ‘97 biopic Private Parts, a researcher states that the average listener tunes in to Stern for just 15 minutes — and the answer most commonly given as to why?

“To see what he’ll say next.”

“But what about those who hate Stern?” asks “Pig Vomit,” Howard’s boss.

“Two and a half hours per day,” says the Researcher.

“What? How can that be?”

“To see what he’ll say next.”

In my opinion, Atheists want to be well-informed. They want to know what others are saying, and then what they’re saying next. They wish to keep up with all that they’re contesting, not to change their minds. Others who I’ve spoken with speculate that some self-professed atheists may actually be agnostics who are seeking answers to address internal doubts.

Bram Kleppner is a “a fifth-generation atheist” with iron-clad convictions. He reads religion articles because he’s always hoping small bits of sanity will insist on working their way into religious doctrine. “It was very heartening to hear the Pope suggest that condom use may be OK in certain circumstances,” he told me. He views the religion section as entertaining: “It’s fun watching grown, educated people tying themselves in knots trying to reconcile their beliefs to a world that demonstrates daily that those beliefs are false. I’m also looking for (and almost always find) positive reinforcement for my beliefs about our godless universe and the fact that there’s no afterlife.”

Tonight Show regular and comedian Elon Gold, who is performing his one-man show Half Jewish, Half Very Jewish, offered this perspective: “Just as believers sometimes doubt the existence of God, the Atheist will often doubt the non-existence of God! That’s why they’re always checking the religious section for breaking news. … ‘Has the Messiah come today? No? Oh good, I’m still right, it’s all BS!’ Who’s more worried about God’s existence than an atheist? Especially the atheist who lives a life of debauchery and sin — If there is a God, there’ll be no red carpet treatment for him in the afterlife. So he’s got to keep up with religious news. The consequences are enormous if he’s wrong!”

But as staunch atheist Bill Maher said in his documentary Religulous, “We need God to decide not to kill each other?”

Atheist comedian Frank King told me he reads the religion section in self defense: “Hardcore Christians tell me the Bible calls homosexuality ‘an abomination.’ What they fail to mention is that it’s only one of several HUNDRED abominations, including wearing clothes made of more than one material. Better send all those blends to Goodwill. When I point that out, they change gears and ask why I’m endorsing the gay agenda. Gays have an agenda? Ever watch Queer Eye for the Straight Guy? You can’t get 5 gay guys to agree on drapes, much less an agenda!”

Joking aside, I spoke with clergy members, theologians and psychologists who agreed with my thoughts about the atheist’s thirst for knowledge, the need to say abreast of what believers are saying.

“Deep down within every person is a yearning for belief in God,” explained Rabbi Yitzchak Rosenbaum, Associate Director of the National Jewish Outreach Program (NJOP). “Even avowed atheists may still be searching for a reason to believe and where better to find that (without going to church or synagogue) than on the religion page.”

When pastor and author Carol Howard Merritt started blogging for The Huffington Post, she initially read comments and responded to them, just as she does on her personal blog. While she maintains close friendships with atheists, she encountered what she refers to as “extreme atheism” while reading angry comments to her posts: “It felt like I was volunteering to put my hand in the meat grinder. I noticed quickly that I slacked off in my writing, and I began to lose my voice. You know, I’m smarter than Pavlov’s dogs, and if I get hurt every time I do something, then I stop doing it.”

But the pastor persevered and continues to write articles today. “It made me curious. I mean, there are a myriad of things that I don’t believe. I don’t believe in horoscopes, but I don’t feel compelled to hang out on horoscope sites and tell the readers how foolish they are. I decided I needed to get tougher.”

She had great things to say about Alex Wilhelm, an atheist who also blogs for the religion section of The Huffington Post, so I contacted him.

“I must admit that I read the religion section partially for a laugh,” Wilhelm wrote to me, “Why else? To keep an eye on things that I am wary of: anti-intellectualism, pseudo-science, lying to children, extremism, scriptural literalism, anti-blasphemy laws and the like. If you don’t know what you are up against, you can’t fight it as well as you could or should. I am for a free and secular society where the individual is protected from not just the majority, but from the moral laws of the religious. And so while I do read the oddest articles for a cheap chuckle, I tend to read to gird myself to protect individual liberty.”

Clinical psychologist David Sabine, Ph.D., first joked to me that atheists read the religion section for the same reason the CIA listens to Al Jazeera, but then he gave me the more professional response: “The late theologian Paul Tillich views atheism as a legitimate way to express one’s ‘ultimate concern.’ This refers to seeking answers to depth and mystery in life. Atheism, far from being faithless, is a powerful expression of some people’s view about ‘what it’s all about.’ So it makes sense for one with ‘ultimate concern’ to read the religion section and know how others are addressing the question, albeit in different ways.”

From a personal standpoint, I look forward to comments from those who challenge me. I look forward to answering questions and I’ll willingly admit there are some I can not answer. You could say there’s an agnostic in me — I don’t always know what to make of what I was taught. Of course, it is easier to welcome opposition when it’s delivered in a “with all due respect” tone.

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach (The Michael Jackson Tapes, Kosher Sex) says there are two kinds of atheists. One kind is what he refers to as “an atheist out of complacency; they can’t be bothered to believe in God and so are atheists out of convenience.” The second, he explains, is the professional atheist. Rabbi Boteach says that the latter “maintains a deep dislike for religion. ‘Professional atheism’ is far more about attacking religion than it is about non-belief in God. So they follow religion sections, obsess over them, joke about them, put them down and mock them.”

My feeling: anger does not discriminate. While some atheists read the religion section to keep current, some do so because religion incenses them and they feel the need to let people know. And that’s OK. Jews get angry, Christians get angry. Humans get angry. It’s an individual’s right.

If a priest, a rabbi, and an atheist walk into a bar, there’s no telling who will be the first to lose their cool (…or who’ll go on to pen the joke)!